Bairdi Tanner crab are the larger cousins of snow crab (opilio Tanner)
Reopening a commercial Tanner crab fishery at Prince William Sound is the goal of state managers and local communities, and surveys this summer could set the stage to soon drop pots.

“The Board of Fisheries adopted a harvest strategy that we brought forward and it establishes abundance thresholds that could potentially open commercial fisheries depending on how high our abundance estimates are that come from our trawl surveys.”

Jan Rumble is area groundfish and shellfish manager for Fish and Game based in Homer.

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Up to 14 million pounds of Tanners came out of Prince William Sound in the early 1970s then, as with other parts of the Central Gulf, steadily dwindled.  The fishery was closed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and showed little sign of recovery. No fishery has occurred since 1995.

In recent years, a pulse of crab recruits has appeared in surveys and subsistence pots. That prompted a push three years ago to work towards setting a new harvest strategy and thresholds. Another change will  reduce the legal size limit of male crab shells from 5.3 inches to 5 inches.

 “We have a situation in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound  – we’re finding that male crab in both of these areas are coming to a terminal molt condition and they are not reaching legal harvest size.”

A terminal molt, Rumble says, means the crabs reach a maximum size and stop growing.

“We’re hoping that this harvest strategy that includes this reduced size limit will help stimulate the population of legal sized males by taking some of these terminal molt crabs out of the population and letting the larger, faster growing males mate in order to get these males to legal size.”

Crabbers who want to drop pots in two areas outside of the Sound that were not surveyed last winter also may get a commissioner’s permit to do so.

“So if people are interested in going out there we would send an observer aboard and they could go out there and see if they could catch any Tanner crab with pots.”

Test fishery and historical survey comparisons show that crab populations continue to be below harvest thresholds. More will be known about the stock status this summer.

It will be based on our survey we’re doing in June. And we have all of the structure ready to do our analysis as soon as we’re done with the fishey and be able to respond to the harvest strategy to see where the population is at. So it’s not going to take a long period of time to figure this out.”

Rumble cautions that the summer survey could be tanked depending on the fate of state budget that  remains stalled.

“I guess we would ask people to support us with their legislators that fishery independent surveys are important to the health of all of our stocks, whether it’s salmon or crab, and that this translates from good research to good management.”